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That Freelance Game

Let’s just glide over the fact that I’ve not blogged since last year, and only blogged 7 times last year…. but hey, here’s a goodie! So recently Instagram updated their app to allow features like asking questions (if you didn’t know, open a new tab and google, I’ll see you back here in a  minute). And I jumped on that bandwagon to see what my followers wanted to know, surprisingly, there were a lot of questions around working for yourself, or working from home and I had some really lovely exchanges with people. I also had some interesting Facebook memories pop up that got me thinking about freelance life and how I’ve made it work (and when I say work, I mean I haven’t starved quite yet and the power is still on, so that’s good). It got me thinking that it might be good to share some of the things I’ve come to learn, while a lot of this is design-led, the advice is quite transferable.

It’s been almost four years of doing Oh Gosh completely full time, and before that, on and off for about eight years. It’s been T E N years since I had my first photography work published in Trends Magazine too, so I have of course learnt some things… lean in

Policies, Systems, Processes and T&C’s!

Let’s get the boring one out of the way first. Having started my professional life in administration, I know the backbone to any business is all this boring guff. When you have to do everything yourself, your processes allow you to not miss anything (and potentially annoy or lose a client). It helps speed things up and accurate record keeping allows you to invoice properly and not lose out. My processes aren’t just for when I have an active job, but every part of my company such as my business development; the flow from first contact, to quote, to turning that into a job — there are steps I follow each time to ensure nothing gets missed. I’m often juggling more than one project at a time; multiple branding, website builds, plus the magazine and managing all my contributors, and it’s important to not get flustered.

I’m old fashioned and still use written job sheets to track my hours, I need to write things down to remember them (I’m a creative! It’s all about the visual) and this ensures I bill clients accurately, not just what I remember, there are heaps of apps that you can use but this way works for me. I have physical pockets for each client too, there lives their job sheet and any notes from our meetings I rip from my notebook and tuck in there — everything in the one place for when I’m working on their job. My client folders are organised on my computer too and I archive folders I haven’t needed to use for 6 months or more, keeping the clutter down. I allocate one afternoon a week or so to admin; all my invoicing, filing of quotes, email inbox tidy up and just keeping on top of stuff.

I never delete an email. Ever. Even the ones that just say ‘thanks’, that’s confirmation someone read and acknowledged your email. Each client has a folder and they go in there; you never know when you might need to refer back to something. I use my inbox as a to-do list of sorts, or at least a reminder so nothing gets filed until it’s been dealt to. I love Airmail, it has an awesome function that let’s you schedule your emails to send later on, perfect for when you are working over the weekend to get ahead, but you don’t actually want people to know you’re working and then think it’s ok to call you on a Sunday morning….

Last boring one, promise! Your terms and conditions are important. So important. Yes, they are like an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff but there have been at least two occasions where they have saved my butt. Your T&C’s will evolve over time, you’ll experience something that will make you think ‘wish I’d had that in there before’. You can write these yourself and have a lawyer look over them (recommended) rather than asking a lawyer to draft them for you. You know your business and your clients best. As a starting point, include points around:

  • How you expect to be paid; 20th of the month? In advance? Progress payments? Whatever, but it needs to be in there
  • Will you expect a deposit (yes, yes, yes)
  • What happens if you or your client want to cancel or stop a job
  • Who has copyright of the work?
  • Will you charge for mileage?
  • Confidentiality clause, your clients need to know you won’t go talking about their business to a competitor
  • What happens if the scope of work you quoted for changes?
  • What will you supply at the end of the project? File types etc.

There’s more to it, but that will get you thinking anyway. Keep these up to date and send them with every quote you do for a client; even if they’ve used you before.

Marketing & Advertising

You can’t sell a secret. Seems like a no brainer, right? You’d think so. You can set up social pages, you can build a website, but those are destinations for people to land on more than actually generating business, you have to get people there first. You need to advertise your services without putting all your eggs in one basket. Put together a marketing plan for yourself, this might be as basic as a five line, bulleted list, or as complicated as a full on strategy with month to month action points, but either way you have to have something.

Invest in your advertising and spread it across multiple platforms, use both AdWords and traditional print media with social, not just the one channel. I get a lot of business from both those things; people see my ads for brand awareness so when they google me and I show up, they know me already. I have my car branded and I always make sure I have business cards on me at all times (even to nip to the Four Square). I keep my social feeds current and I advertise in local magazines and newspapers. There is no silver bullet or one thing that works all the time but sit down and work out what options are available to you, and how much you can afford. ‘Can you afford not to’ is a question I often ask my own marketing clients!

When you do get someone get in touch with you wanting a quote, ask how they heard about you as the answer will often surprise you. While it’s often a combination of things this is a great way to see what is working.

I know for me, people often see my print ads or my car driving past and they are reminded to call me. Sometimes they have seen me before and google for a designer so when I pop up they recognise me, or of course they know about my other work — all are great!

Do stuff you love!

It’s easy to get bogged down in boring work sometimes, so create or do something that makes you feel invigorated. If I have ten minutes, I’ll go through my Pinterest and pin a bunch of design inspo. I’ll go for a walk on the beach, or call a friend. I’ll see what’s happening on Instagram with the other design people I follow (or check out cute puppies, whatever), I’ll catch up with some of my other freelance buddies just to see how they’re going and sometimes I’ll take on a project just because it seems like fun. My blog is a creative project and I started Gather as a creative outlet, I tend to turn my passions into my job which defeats the purpose but you get the idea.

How to say no…

Sometimes, you just have to say ‘no, thank you’. You’ll be asked to do things for free or for a reduced rate by friends or family, you might be contacted by a charity or start up that has little to no budget. It’s ok to say yes, if you want, but you don’t have to.

When you are starting out, it can often be a fine balance between wanting to do work so you can build a portfolio of real client work and wanting to get paid. You may want to give those people a discount so that you can use the work to promote yourself, and that is fine, but explain that is why you are giving the discount (and that they might not get it again next time). Ask for your expenses to be covered such as mileage or printing costs, and perhaps a set fee that covers the work even if it’s a nominal value, the transaction creates an expectation and keeps it professional.

People tend to value what they have to pay for when it comes to work and a client paying for a service shows a value in your time and expertise. I’ve done a few contra arrangements in the past or I have donated my time when I feel that it’s appropriate, or I know it will be better in the long run, but I’ve also had to say no. If you do say no, be polite, explain why if you want, but ultimately don’t feel as though you have to do anything for ‘exposure’.

Know your worth

Pricing yourself is always a challenge. You will be way too cheap to some and too expensive for others, and that’s ok as it’s subjective. The way I look at it, is that if I market myself properly (see, this is when it all works together) then I will attract the right kinds of clients that like my work, like my style and just want me to work on their project with them which is exactly what happens most of the time. I do of course get a few people that haven’t used a designer before and weren’t sure what to expect, but I make sure my quotes are detailed and we can usually work out what they can afford and go from there. Let’s clear up some pricing myths you might be asking yourself!

‘I work from home, so that should make me cheaper?’ Um, no. People are hiring your skills, not your office. It’s about the quality of work created, not where you create it. I still have expenses (Adobe, you’re killing me, my computer, cloud back ups, hard drives, tablets, Pantone books, fonts to buy, a lot of coffee…) and even though I work from home, there are still associated expenses with a home office. The level of work I produce is on an equal level as that of an Auckland studio so there is no reason why that should be any cheaper.

‘I’m starting out, should I charge less?’ Yes, essentially. But don’t start at rock bottom. Price increases are hard to implement once you have an established client base. For me, I am at a senior designer/art director level, so I quote myself accordingly but I also recognise that I am working with mainly small to medium businesses and start-ups that recognise they want to start on the right foot, but it’s about charging what you feel comfortable with and what works for your own unique situation. But, if your potential clients are all saying no because you’re too expensive, you do need to look at your pricing.

Pricing is always hard. Look at your expenses, your costs, your skillset and if in doubt, ask some people you trust that have maybe hired someone like you before what they think.

Quick fire tips!
  • When you are really snowed under (or have your head down in a complicated project) put on an out of office reply, letting people know you’ll get back to them later. This stops your valuable clients from getting miffed, or if it’s urgent, they’ll call.
  • Be aware of your industry, but don’t compare yourself constantly. The grass is greenest where you water it and all that.
  • Write stuff down when you remember it; on paper or use the notes in your phone.
  • Have a professional voicemail message.
  • Use your calendar to remind yourself of when you need to do something, like call someone, or follow up a quote.

Freelance can be hard work, I often work all the hours in the day with a lot of late nights and weekends, but I do love what I do and I appreciate the flexibility, as well as working for myself. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.